Sights and Sounds
My father took me to visit a friend of his. “I met him at the bar,” my father told me during the ride there. “He has his head on straight, not like the rest of the people around here.”
The man lived in a small house next to a farm—the house had a tarpaper roof and imitation-wood shingles. When we got inside, my father and his new friend had some drinks. Then the man took us down to his basement—a space with a low ceiling and a coal furnace. The only light came from an incandescent bulb hanging from a wire. The man led us to a corner, which had been sectioned off with wood planks. A large pig—a hog—stood in the enclosure with its hindquarters to us. The animal must have weighed a couple of hundred pounds. The pig couldn’t walk around in its pen—its bulk filled the enclosure—but it could lie on straw on the cement floor.
I noticed there wasn’t much smell. Either the straw had been changed recently, or this was a clean pig.
“What are you going to do with it?” my father asked.
“When it gets big enough, we’ll show it at the county fair,” the friend said. “This is a prize hog. Maybe it will win a ribbon.”
In the evening, my father took my family to a classical music concert at the state university. We rode in his car to an auditorium about twenty miles away. The auditorium was in a gymnasium—the stage was raised above the floor, and chairs were aligned on the basketball court.
The orchestra featured a harpist; she was the musician I focused on. She was wearing a long gown, and her shoulders were bare. I looked for her in the program, found her name and tried to remember it.
The concert meant little to me. The music was pleasant enough, but the musicians didn’t do anything except sit and play. The motion of the conductor’s hands and arms didn’t hold my interest. I couldn’t tell what was coming next—I didn’t know the score—but nothing new ever came next. It was always more of the same, just at a louder or softer volume.
I watched the harpist throughout the concert. I knew her name.
During the day, I watched a parade with my brother and sister from the grass next to our house. There was a rise in the lawn next to the street, and the incline made a good seat. Trucks and emergency vehicles from nearby fire stations rolled by. On some of the vehicles were beauty queens, who waved as they passed. Between the fire engines, school bands with baton twirlers marched. The majorettes kicked up their skirts with their knees as they came.
Near the end of the parade, I saw the hog from the basement we’d visited. The animal was riding in the back of a pickup truck, and my father’s friend was driving. The hog still couldn’t move around much, but it could look out over the sideboard. The man waved, and the hog made eye contact with me, as if it, too, remembered our meeting.
I heard my father listening to music on his stereo system. I pictured him drinking beer and smoking tobacco. I was sure he didn’t want to be disturbed, so I avoided him.
After a while, he stopped playing records and walked out of the house. At that point, I went for the stereo. The system had an amplifier powered by vacuum tubes, and when I turned the device on, I could see the tubes warming up in the metal box. In their hot state, the tubes glowed orange. The amplifier put out a lot of wattage, and the sound was powerful. Each speaker stood about three feet high. When I turned the volume knob past halfway, the sound was ear-splitting. That was the way I liked it.
I couldn’t find any harp music, and I didn’t want classical music. So I shut the door to the room and listened to rock music—the harder the better. I put on a British electric-guitar band. I knew my mother was in the next room, but I was rude.
When my mother came through the door, she didn’t say anything.
I turned down the volume, and she stood there in her apron, looking at me. “When they sing, I can’t understand the words,” she said. “My English isn’t that good. I can tell they’re angry, but I don’t know what they’re angry about.”
On a weekend, my father took my siblings and me to a hog-slaughtering party. When we arrived at a nearby farm, the killing had already taken place, but the butchering—the cutting and trimming—was still going on. A number of people filled the barn, where various animal parts were being prepared. There were slabs—steaks—and there was ground meat. I noticed three hogs’ heads resting on a plank. They had been shot through the top of the skull. I guessed that was the quickest method of execution, humane in some way. I didn’t see the face of the prize hog that belonged to my father’s friend.
My brother and sister and I walked around, surrounded by potential food. The place didn’t smell good at first—it smelled of blood and lard. Then I got used to the stench, and it started to smell good.
Late at night, I could hear my father listening to classical music—a piece I didn’t recognize. I pictured him slowed from drink, with his eyes half-closed. He would stay in this state for a long time, maybe all night. Then, not having slept, he would “get up” for the day.
I also couldn’t sleep. I looked at the mechanical clock on the table next to my bed. I calculated the hours I would sleep, if I ever did fall asleep. The ticking clock showed 11 p.m. If I got up at 6 a.m., I would have seven hours of sleep. That would be enough; I would get through the day without feeling tired. I lay listening to the music from downstairs. It had become louder—my father had switched to blues sung by a woman, a gospel singer.
My mother came into the room and saw that I was awake. “Some people slept all the time where I grew up,” she said. “That’s because they were smoking opium. They lived in dens and got very thin. You shouldn’t try that.”
I didn’t want to try it, but nevertheless I couldn’t relax. When I next looked at the clock, it was 1 a.m. That would leave me five hours of sleep. I started counting in my head, “one, two, three … ” The idea was to think about nothing.
But it was hard to focus on the numbers. How far had I gotten? Was I in the one hundreds or the two hundreds? I couldn’t remember. I was thinking about the baton twirlers and the harp player, the one whose name I knew. I started counting again. In about an hour, I had reached the number 1,000. I was more wakeful than ever. I got out of bed and walked around my room, still counting in my head. I lay down again. The clock showed 3 in the morning. I kept counting.
Thaddeus Rutkowski is the author of the books Guess and Check, Violent Outbursts, Haywire, Tetched and Roughhouse. Haywire won the Members’ Choice award, given by the Asian American Writers Workshop. He teaches at Medgar Evers College and the Writer's Voice of the West Side YMCA in New York. He received a fiction writing fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts.